Sometimes a quiet story can achieve feats that rousing tales can’t. The Olive Tree, a simple yet subtle story set in contemporary Lebanon, offers no details or explanation of the 1975 Lebanese Civil War, but invites us to consider the lingering distrust among people and possible paths to reconciliation.
We learn from young Sameer how the house next door was empty for years. “The family who lived there had gone away during the troubles, because they were different from most of the people in the village. But now, thank goodness, the long war was over, and they were coming back.”
Beneath the ample branches of the old olive tree that grows on the other side of the wall, Sameer observes the neighbors as they return home. He notices the family has a girl named Muna, who was about his age. Sadly, neither she nor her family members show any inclination to become friends.
In time, the olives begin to ripen, and Sameer, as he does every year, sets out to gather those that have fallen in his yard. After all, they’re “the best olives in Lebanon,” his mother says. But one morning Muna sees him with a basket full of olives and complains: “Those are our olives, you know. Ours!”
Taken aback, Sameer points out that all the years they were away, Sameer and his family took care of the tree. “We have a right to the olives,” he says.
Muna insists that now that they’re back, they’ll take care of the tree and have all the olives. In his anger, Sameer leans over the wall and dumps his basket of olives into her yard.
Then one night a mighty storm descends and lightning strikes the tree, leaving a shattered stump and a broken stone wall. The children, confronting the loss of the precious old tree, discover they can put aside their differences and begin to live in harmony with each other and the land.
Ms. Ewart’s atmospheric, two-page spreads of naturalistic watercolor paintings flesh out the poignant story with realistic details. The mothers of both families wear the hijab; a goat, a donkey, and chickens populate the yards; and chairs have seats of woven bulrush.
With Elsa Marston’s understated story of conflict resolution, The Olive Tree is a valuable resource for teaching children to respect everyone.
Reprinted with permission of The New York Journal of Books.